Beginning with the first mail order catalog in the 1890s, people have turned pages to weave together images of the perfect home or the ideal wardrobe. From about 1900 through 1940, hundreds of thousands of customers also selected their most important purchase, a house, from a catalog. Catalog houses were essentially do-it-yourself homebuilding kits. When a customer ordered a house through a catalog, he or she received all of the parts, usually cut to length and numbered for proper assembly, to build the selected home. In the first half of the twentieth century, catalog houses helped meet a demand for well-built, reasonably priced houses in America's expanding cities and suburbs.
Although pattern books and house plans had been widely available throughout the mid-nineteenth century, catalog housing did not begin in earnest until the early twentieth century with the founding of the Aladdin Company in 1907. One of the longest-lived catalog housing companies, Aladdin remained in business through 1983. Robert Schweitzer and Michael W. R. Davis in America's Favorite Houses, a survey of catalog house companies, estimated that the Aladdin Company sold 50,000 houses during its 76-year history.
Aladdin was soon joined by a number of national and regional companies, including Gordon Van-Tine, Lewis Manufacturing Company, Sterling Homes, and Montgomery Ward. Probably the best known producer of mail order and catalog homes was Sears, Roebuck & Company, which sold homes through its Modern Homes catalog from 1908 until 1940. In addition to these national companies, a variety of regional and local companies also sold catalog houses.
A variety of factors contributed to the success of the companies that sold houses through the mail. In the early decades of the twentieth century, American cities were growing rapidly, due both to increased foreign immigration and to migration from rural areas. According to Schweitzer and Davis, the population of the United States increased by 50 percent from 1890 to 1910. Much of this growth was in American cities. As a result, there was a great demand for affordable, well built houses. Catalog housing helped to meet this need.
In addition to the growth of urban areas, technological advances made catalog houses possible. Steam-powered lumber mills made lumber available year round, and the national railroad system enabled building parts to be readily transported. This allowed the catalog house companies both to create a nationwide system of suppliers and made it possible to easily ship house components and other goods. Sears owned lumber mills in Illinois and Louisiana, and a millwork plant in Norwood, Ohio.
The catalog house companies did their utmost to insure that their houses were ready to assemble. One of the innovations introduced by Aladdin in 1911 and quickly adopted by other manufacturers were parts that were "Readi-cut." More than an advertising slogan, the concept of lumber that was, as Sears called it, "already cut and fitted," meant that the structural components were precut to exact lengths and ready for assembly. The benefits of this were many: The do-it-yourselfer or contractor building the house did not have to spend time on the job cutting the lumber to fit; it reduced wasted materials and construction mistakes; and, in an age before power tools, it simplified house building.
Part of the fascination with catalog houses in the late twentieth century is how inexpensive they seem. In 1926 it was possible to buy a six-room house from Sears for as little as $2,232. This price included all of the lumber needed to construct the house, together with the shingles, millwork, flooring, plaster, windows, doors, hardware (including nails), the siding and enough paint for three coats. It did not include the cost of the lot nor the labor required to build the house, nor did it include any masonry such as concrete for the foundation. If the house came from Sears, plumbing, heating, wiring, and storm and screen doors and windows were not part of the original package, but could, of course, be purchased from Sears at extra cost. The buyer of a catalog house also received a full set of blue prints and a complete construction manual.
One of the common elements of catalog houses was their design. Catalogs from Sears, Roebuck & Co., Ray H. Bennett Lumber Company, the Radford Architectural Company, and Gordon Van-Tine show houses that seem nearly interchangeable. Bungalows, American Four-Squares, and Colonial Revival designs dominate. Sears regularly reviewed the design of its houses and introduced new models and updated the more popular designs. A small four-room cottage, the Rodessa, was available in 11 catalogs, between 1919 an 1933. The floor plan remained basically the same over the years although details changed.
Sears had several sources for its house designs. The company often bought designs for houses that had already been built and were well received by the public. Sears also purchased designs from popular magazines and reproduced those houses exactly. Beginning in 1919, the company created its own in-house architectural division that developed original house designs and adapted other contemporary designs for sale by Sears. The Architects' Council, as it was called, became a selling point for Sears, which promoted the "free" architectural service provided to buyers of Sears' houses.
Apart from reflecting the growth of city and suburb and the growth of a mass market for housing, catalog houses were designed to meet changing concepts of house and home. New materials, such as linoleum, and laborsaving devices such as vacuum cleaners and electric irons, made houses easier to manage. This reduced the need for servants, which meant that houses could be smaller. At the same time, lifestyles became less formal. The catalog house plans reflected these changes, often eliminating entry vestibules and formal parlors. The catalogs helped to reinforce and promote the interest in smaller houses and less formal living spaces through their pages. Similar ideas were promoted by popular magazines, such as Ladies' Home Journal, which sold house plans designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and others, and organizations such as the American Institute of Architects, which created the Small House Service Bureau, known as the ASHB in 1919.
Advertising played an important role in the success of mail order housing companies. The most effective tool used was annual catalogs. The catalogs not only advertised the range of models available but promoted the value of home ownership over paying rent, and provided the potential customer with testimonials and guarantees promoting the quality of houses offered by each manufacturer.
The guarantees provided by the catalog firms were one of the most effective tools used to promote their products. Sears provided a written "Certificate of Guarantee" with each house; the guarantee promised that sufficient materials of good quality would be received to complete the house. Other companies offered similar guarantees of quality and satisfaction; Aladdin, for example, promoted its lumber to be "knot-free" by offering consumers a "Dollar-a-knot" guarantee. Liberty offered its customers an "iron-clad guarantee," while Lewis had a seven-point protection plan.
In addition to their catalogs, the mail-order house companies advertised in popular magazines, including the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, and House Beautiful. Early in their history, the ads were small and placed in the back pages of magazines; the emphasis was to promote confidence in the products in order to develop a market. The ads emphasized the cost savings, sound quality, and fast delivery. Later ads were much larger and often consisted of a one-or two-page spread emphasizing that the homes sold were both stylish and well built.
Each of the catalog housing companies had their own philosophy about providing financing. Sears first provided financing for its houses in 1911. At first loans were for the house only; by 1918, however, Sears began advancing capital for the labor required to build the house. Eventually, Sears also loaned buyers the money to pay for the lot and additional material. Other companies selling houses through the mail were more conservative. Aladdin never provided financing and required a 25 percent deposit at the time the order was placed, with the balance due upon delivery. Sterling offered a 2 percent discount for customers paying in cash, as did Gordon-Van Tine.
Sears vigorously promoted its easy payment plan throughout its catalogs. The 1926 catalog includes an advertisement that assures the reader that "a home of your own does not cost you any more than your present mode of living. Instead of paying monthly rental, by our Easy Payment Plan you may have … a beautiful home instead of worthless rent receipts." And, in the event that the reader missed the two-page layout promoting Sears' financing plan, each catalog page illustrating a house plan included a reminder of the availability of the "easy payment plan."
Just as a combination of conditions led to the initial success of catalog houses, a number of factors contributed to their demise. The company's liberal financing policies are often cited as a contributing factor in the death of Sears' Modern Homes program. During the depression of the 1930s, the company was forced to foreclose on thousands of mortgages worth more than $11 million, and lost additional money by reselling the houses below cost.
After World War II, social policy and technology passed by catalog housing. There was no longer a niche for people who wanted to build their own houses. The returning veterans and their brides were anxious to return to normal lives, and they no longer had the time or inclination to build their own houses. However, they did have the wherewithal to buy houses built by others. Subdivisions of builder-constructed housing, beginning with Levittown, sprang up across the country to meet this need. The builders of postwar housing capitalized on the great demand by adapting Henry Ford's assembly line principles to home construction. The desire for houses that were well built disappeared in the need for houses that were quickly built.
Gowans, Alan. The Comfortable House: North American Suburban Architecture 1890-1930. Cambridge, Massachusetts, M.I.T. Press, 1986.
Schweitzer, Robert, and Michael W. R. Davis. America's Favorite Homes: Mail Order Catalogues as a Guide to Popular Early 20th Century Houses. Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1990.
Sears, Roebuck and Co. Sears, Roebuck Catalog of Houses, 1926: An Unabridged Reprint. New York, Dover Publications, Inc. and Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 1991.
Stevenson, Katherine C., and H. Ward Jandl. Houses by Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company. Washington, D.C., Preservation Press, 1986.